I really wanted to love last night’s lecture by satirist PJ O’Rourke to the Centre for Independent Studies. PJ writes funny, erudite, snappish books with titles like Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance. So I went to hear “Invisible Hand versus Visible Fist, Securing the Future Wealth of Nations with high hopes — and was disappointed.

It was hard to pin point the problem. Is it that writers generally don’t make good speakers? Did the CIS fail to explain to him that it was a lecture, not just a bar-room chat? Or did PJ, after surviving a brutal bout of cancer last year, simply want a free holiday in Australia with his family?

Perhaps some of the members, after sitting through previous lectures, entitled History as the Story of Liberty: A globalised Western Civilisation and Anglo Primacy at the End of History: The Deep Roots of Power, simply wanted some light relief.

But it was PJ going through the motions. You had the feeling that he had delivered this talk a hundred times before. And he wasn’t even very funny. For example, “Why was Hillary Clinton appointed Secretary of State? She thinks foreign affairs are what happens when Bill leaves the country.”

There wasn’t much local content, apart from a good joke about Kevin, where he said that “the US has elected a charming leftist; you at least had the sense to elect one who is not so charming.”

And he even managed to joke about the Holocaust. After the Great Depression, Hitler had come along with the economic stimulus package of WWII, he chuckled. That went down like a plate of matzo.

It was a great audience, though, a robust collection of conservative, white, middle-class sixtysomething men, bursting out of their pin-striped suits. The room looked like the seal pond at Taronga, with large, blubbery mammals moving around very slowly, occasionally emitting a loud honk.

As PJ himself said in Parliament of Whores:

There’s a whiff of the lynch mob or the lemming migration about any overlarge concentration of like-thinking individuals, no matter how virtuous their cause.

To those of us obsessed with the fin de siecle, this was living history. What do you do when you are too old to run large companies and too unpopular to run the country? Well, I guess you join a right-wing think tank and finance research into why paid maternity leave is a terrible thing (but I thought you wanted us to have more babies??) and why governments shouldn’t spend more money on preventive health.

But it was fabulous to see some old favourites. Peter McGauran (on the Qantas table) Alexander Downer (on the Turnbulls table) and even Tony Abbott were there, but it was Barry O’Farrell who attracted the most attention, receiving a long line of adoring fans. I overheard Tony telling one of his neighbours that his father, a dentist, had worked until he was 79. Alarmed, I tried to warn Malcolm that Abo still has time for that leadership challenge, but the Turnbulls had left early. No John Howard, but amanuensis Arthur Sinodonis was there, with NAB.

After the main course (slabs of beef) was served, PJ took questions from the audience, emceed by the immensely tall and thin VC of Macquarie University, Steven Schwartz. Why, I asked myself, was his black jacket four inches too long? Is it a frock coat? Is it because he is American (by birth)? Or is he subconsciously trying to look like Rif-Raf in the Rocky Horror Show? In truth, we were all doing the Time Warp, but luckily with our clothes on.

The final word must go to P J, although he was quoting that other American curmudgeon, H.L Mencken. On a day when Malcolm Turnbull had made truly idiotic statements about refugees, these words rang true.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

Peter Fray

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